As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, and historian Anne Applebaum observes in her sobering new book Twilight of Democracy—The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.” This is not fear-mongering by a reckless provocateur. Anne Applebaum is of self-described center-right persuasion, careful in her formulation of thought, gifted in her faculty to communicate, and one of the most respected political observers of our time.
Democracies never simply fade away. Instead, they are often crushed by the sweep of historical events or the plotting of authoritarian opportunists or scheming malcontents. One needn’t search far back into history to grasp how easily the light of democracy can be extinguished. Sadly, examples abound in our own 21st century. Russia had its moment of democracy; so did Poland, and Hungry, among many other nations. Democracy seemed on the march, to have risen at least temporarily from the rubble of oppressive totalitarian regimes. History has demonstrated time and time again, however, that democracy is not a final civic achievement but rather, often, a much-too-temporary choice that societies sometimes embrace and, often, squander, discard, or have stolen.
Authoritarianism is neither dominated by the left-wing nor right-wing, neither liberal nor conservative, neither upper class nor lower class, neither rich nor poor. It is, Applebaum observes, a state of mind, not a set of ideas.
When people yearn for simplicity rather than complexity, similarity rather than plurality, ordered direction rather than raucous debate, and peace-and-quiet in the presence of lawless rioting, arson, and looting, authoritarianism awaits in the wings ready to accommodate.
Conspiracy theories also abound whenever and wherever authoritarians make their grab for power. Vladimir Putin is a master at stoking conspiracy fires. He, like President Trump and other authoritarian personalities, will give credence to a conspiracy theory by, in effect, answering questions about a particular theory with, “Yes, I’ve heard that too, or that’s what a lot of people say or think.”
When a worker from Novosibirsk asked Putin if he believed then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had suggested splitting Russia into several regions under international control, Putin answered that while he hadn’t heard it directly from Secretary Albright, he believed these ideas were prevalent in the minds of Western politicians. Ilya Yablokov of the University of Leeds notes that everything bad that happens in Russia is traced back by someone in authority to an anti-Russian plot hatched in the West.
Applebaum writes about the impact in Poland of the so-called Smolensk conspiracy theory. The small community of Smolensk hosts a marginal landing strip at which the then-President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, and his party were to land on their way to commemorate the Katyn massacres in which Josef Stalin, in 1940, murdered twenty-one thousand Polish officers. The plane crashed as it approached in dense fog, killing all on board. The black-box cockpit recordings provide incontrovertible proof that senior military officers urged the pilot to land rather than diverting to an alternate airport. The President’s identical twin brother, then Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, while no-doubt grief-stricken, nonetheless, stoked the utterly disproven Smolensk conspiracy theory. He asserted that his brother died at the hands of outside forces and rode the controversy into the Presidency as the head of the ultra-right Law and Justice Party.
Similarly, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungry, has cultivated conspiracy theories to tighten his grip on the government since regaining power in 2010. Central to his conspiracy drumbeat has been the demonization of Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros. Because Soros generously supports liberal causes and pro-democracy movements, including in Hungry, Viktor Orban has attacked him relentlessly. Right-wing social media trolls here in the United States walk in lock-step with the European strongman in attacking Soros, most famously by alleging that he has funded immigrant caravans from Honduras to the United States. Many on the far right accept as an article of faith that Soros, a billionaire capitalist, schemes relentlessly against the United States. When pressed to be specific about their grievances with Soros, his detractors invariably repeat one of many debunked conspiracy theories about him.
Conspiracy theories are, of course, alive and thriving in the United States too — birtherism, deep-state lore, the so-called Coronavirus hoax, and our President giving a nod to QAnon conspiracy followers. One could pass all of this off as election-year hyperbole. Still, it is incredibly toxic to our democracy, divisive to our sense of national purpose and unprecedented in our history.
Democracy in America is not vouched safe by anything more than a national reverence for the republic. As Benjamin Franklin proclaimed on the steps of Independence Hall 233 years ago, “you have a republic, if you can keep it.” As Ann Applebaum eloquently warns, keeping it is far from certain.